During the 16th century, Mughal Emperor Humayun, who ruled most of the subcontinent, wrote a letter to the Ottoman Sultan, Suleiman the Great, praising him for his military, literary and religious achievements. The same Humayun also fostered close relations with the Safavid Empire, an Iranian dynasty that ruled the territories stretching from Georgia to the Arabian Sea. So it is not surprising that their two successors, Azerbaijan and Pakistan, share lasting diplomatic relations.
Only this month, in a telephone call with his counterpart from Pakistan, Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev expressed his deep concern about the alleged violations of Indian human rights in Kashmir, stating “Azerbaijan regards Pakistan as a close friend” and will “continue to support it“In every forum. Not surprisingly, Pakistan responded to Aliyev’s comments, referring to Islamabad’s support for Baku in its long-running dispute with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh, a small enclave in the Caucasus which has become a frequent site of conflict between the two countries.
The two leaders also discussed the coronavirus pandemic and shortly afterwards, Azerbaijan’s ambassador to Pakistan, Ali Alizada, visited a medical center in Islamabad. Alizada was photographed donate medical masksfood packages and other equipment. Although the gestures are small, the message, the time, and the symbolism of Aliyev’s statement and Alizada’s actions are clear: Azerbaijan is one of Pakistan’s closest (and perhaps most enduring) allies among the former Soviet states. Close relationships are based on shared experiences and mutual benefits.
The similarities between the two countries are very striking. Not only do they have the same Persian-Turkish history (both have been part of Ancient Persia, Timurid Turkey, and the Safavid Empire of Iran), but they also have similar cultural, religious and geopolitical views. Baku State University has a well-established branch of Urdu, teaching Azeri students the national language of Pakistan, while the online Azeri news agency was recently launched in Pakistan. Both Pakistan and Azerbaijan are predominantly Muslim countries. Islamabad and Baku also have legitimate concerns about sectarian violence and militant Islam occurring in their country, especially given Pakistan’s proximity to Afghanistan and Azerbaijan’s porous northern border with Russian Dagestan.
Perhaps because of this, their geopolitical views are also similar. Both countries have been careful to avoid getting involved in regional conflicts, especially in Syria and the wider Middle East. In addition, Baku has a complicated balancing act to play in Syria, apparently trapped between anti-Assad Turks in the west and pro-Damascus Russia in the north. Baku’s relations with Istanbul are well documented, especially given Turkey’s own dispute with Armenia and subsequent support for Azerbaijan’s claim to Nagorno-Karabakh. However, Baku cannot risk alienating Russia; its trade with Moscow increased by almost 23 percent in the first seven months of 2019. This month alone, the Azerbaijan president spoke about the Azerbaijan-Russian ties and their relations joint sacrifice in the Great Patriotic War, as World War II was known in the countries of the former Soviet Union. Pakistan’s situation in Syria is similar, because it finds itself squeezed diplomatically between two countries (Saudi Arabia and Iran) which have different destinations in Syria and the wider region.
It is clear from President Aliyev’s recent statement that Pakistan and Azerbaijan have strong bilateral relations, but where do they go from here and can the already strong relations continue? One area that they could develop further was in the military field. In 2018, members of Pakistan’s Armed Forces actively discussed military and defense cooperation, culminating in Baku expressing interest in buying Pakistan’s new JF-17 Thunder jet fighter. JF-17 is a joint venture between Pakistan and China and the statement of Baku’s interest in Guntur JF-17 also hints at other possible benefits of Pakistan’s policy in Azerbaijan, namely, utilizing bilateral relations with Pakistan to strengthen relations with “all-weather Islamabad” allies, “Beijing .
Late last year, Azerbaijan’s Deputy Prime Minister Shahin Mustafayev expressed his support for China’s flagship Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), explaining how Azerbaijan’s Baku-Tbilisi-Kars train could facilitate “pulling” and “more reliable delivery“Between China and Europe. Pakistan is also a major player in the BRI project and is well placed to facilitate closer diplomatic relations between Baku and Beijing. Pakistan can also assist Azerbaijan’s accession to important regional bodies, including the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. In return Azerbaijan’s unwavering support for Pakistan is crucial for Imran Khan’s government and Baku’s repeated efforts to raise the Kashmir issue are a PR coup for Islamabad.
In addition, Pakistan’s other Eurasian ally, Turkey, also continues to express its support for Islamabad. Just before the coronavirus epidemic, Turkish President Racep Tayyip Erdogan said there was no difference between the struggle of the Turkish War of Independence and the contemporary situation in Kashmir. Turkey is an important ally of Pakistan and Islamabad’s relations with Baku, Ankara’s long-term ally, will only strengthen the Pakistan-Turkey-Azerbaijan axis.
However, for all their common goals, warm words and “brotherly love,” it cannot be denied that the two countries face several obstacles. Recently, the Azeri business group expressed a desire to expand economic relations with India, stating that Azerbaijan’s industrial parks could work with Indian companies to help New Delhi expand its economic influence in the agriculture, pharmaceutical and leather industries. Moreover, for all expressions of shared interests, both cultural and geopolitical, there is no direct flight between Pakistan and Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan’s national airline, AZAL, did run services between Baku and the port city of Pakistan in Karachi, but was stopped in the mid-2000s. In contrast, in 2019, AZAL opens a new route to the Indian capital, New Delhi, something that will surely raise eyebrows in Islamabad.
There is an old adage that talks about money and it cannot be denied that the pull of the Indian economy, the fifth largest economy in the world, is important for Azerbaijan. By 2018, Baku trade with New Delhi is near $ 922 million. In comparison, its trade with Pakistan is just a mere one $ 10 million. and this imbalance is unlikely to change anytime soon. Bilateral trade between Azerbaijan and Pakistan also raises further questions about the true power of their current relations. However, their mutual support for each other over territorial disputes, shared geopolitical views, and the possibility of increasing bilateral relations with one another means that for the least foreseeable future, Azerbaijan will remain one of the most long-standing former Soviet allies in Pakistan .
Shahid Hussain completed his undergraduate and master’s degree at University College London (UCL) and will pursue a Ph.D. at UCL focuses on Early Modern diplomacy.
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